Banjo Newsletter

February 2004: Various And Sundries
By Murphy Henry

Before I start in with my sundries I have to tell you that when I was growing up in Clarkesville, Ga., we had a drug store on the square called Turpen's. In true 1950s style it proclaimed what it sold in large wooden script on the walls behind the counters: prescriptions, cosmetics, toiletries, sundries. And because they also had a lunch counter that sold sandwiches, milkshakes, Coke floats, and banana splits, I thought "sundries" meant vanilla ice cream in a Dixie cup with nuts, chocolate syrup, and a cherry on top. Of course in a town where the word "Mrs." was often pronounced "Miz-riz," perhaps it's not surprising that a banjo player in the making would think "sundaes" were "sundries." It wasn't until years later that I figured it out.

But on with more non-banjo stuff.

I now know that if I want to get your attention all I have to do is write something about interstate bathrooms and door hooks. Thanks to each and every one of you who wrote in to tell me not to hang my purse on the top hook because thieves may break through and steal. Well, maybe not break through but reach over the top and grab the purse while my attention is elsewhere, like trying to find the beginning of the roll of toilet paper.

One reader, after describing in detail the three choices I had in the matter (pull pants up and give chase; give chase immediately, running like a penguin; use lower hook and avoid the whole mess) finished up by saying, "You know, after further consideration, you may want to hang your fiddle on the top hook." Has he heard me play?

Joe Page writes in to say, "I go to the Tuesday night jam at the nursing home in Leesburg. There are maybe fifteen people in the jam and perhaps sixty residents listening. The guitar players and singers are working through yet another 'I'm gonna die soon, but Jesus will be waiting for me' dirge in three-quarter time, when suddenly this old lady in the back row yells out, 'For God's sake, will you guys play something happy for a change?' The timing and delivery were just perfect. I'm convinced this music is killing these poor people and they can't get away."

John and Lynn Hedgecoth, who live in Nashville, have a wonderful quote from Hunter S. Thompson posted on the side of their refrigerator (right next to a big Xeroxed picture of Earl): "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men [and women] die like dogs. There's also a negative sideā€¦"

I guess that pithy observation caught my attention at this particular moment since our son Christopher has bitten the bullet, taken the bull by the horns, made a leap of faith, and followed his muse to Nashville. We helped him move into his apartment in November. That first trip he was traveling kinda light, taking only the most important things: his mandolin, his guitar, his computer, his clothes, a couch, two chairs, two quilts from his grandmother, and a huge picture of Bill Monroe. The boy knows what's important!

And I know it's way past Christmas, but I haven't had a chance to tell you about one of my best Christmas presents: an 8 x 10, up-close-and-personal color photograph of Earl's right hand, poised for action with picks at attention, on the head of his banjo. It was taken by my favorite banjo-playing, trash-talking Nashville photographer Dan Loftin. Everything you ever wanted to know about how to position your hand and wear your picks is right there. You're probably wanting to know where I hung it. Well, you see, I have this daughter, this banjo playing daughter with her own house, who looked at me with such wistful eyes and such a sad face and said in such a teeny-tiny voice, "I wish I'd gotten a picture of Earl's hand, too," that I caved. I said she could have it. For a while.

That reminds me of the time, several years ago, when Casey and I went to visit Earl and Louise. It was quite an honor to be in the Scruggs' house and I was trying to be on my best behavior (and not to ask immediately to see Earl's banjo!). We had been there for a good little while, talking and drinking iced tea-both Earl and Louise are delightful conversationalists-when Louise popped the question: would we like to see The Banjo? "I thought you'd never ask!" I replied before I could stop myself. She got the banjo and, lo and behold, she handed it to me. Thank you gods and goddesses of the Universe. Naturally, I had thought long and hard about what tune I would play in front of Earl Scruggs should this once-in-a-lifetime event ever transpire. One thing I knew for certain, I wasn't going to play something Earl had played. That immediately eliminated most of my repertoire. Except for my original tune Hazel Creek, the theme song of the Murphy Method videos. Since Earl hadn't ever heard that, I played it. Not so much to impress him (okay, maybe just a little), but I figured since he'd never heard it before, my mistakes wouldn't be so obvious. (Nervous? Moi? Like a leaf in the wind.) And he was so kind. He asked, with real interest, "What's that?" Which I took as the highest praise.

Then, like a Good Mother, I passed the banjo over to Casey so she could have a turn. (When I was little, with four younger sisters, Taking Turns was almost as important as sitting with your knees together when you were wearing a dress.) So Casey now has the banjo. At this point in the proceedings, Earl gets out the little banjo, pitched in D, that he keeps beside his chair. He says to Casey, "Can you play Home Sweet Home?" (I knew she could.) "In G?" Whoops! (To my knowledge, she'd never played it in G. But I knew I could. "I can! I can!" I wanted to say. "Me, me, me! Let me do it!) "Sure," says Casey calmly. So away she goes, making it up as she goes along, while Earl plays Silver Bells out of C position on his little banjo. (Which makes it come out in G. Don't ask!) Just like in The Scruggs' Book but in a different key. Proud as I was of Casey's playing, it was all I could do to keep from pulling rank and insisting that she give the banjo back to me. Instead, I sat there with a smile on my face while Casey picked with Earl. Just call me Saint Murphy from now on. And a great big HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO EARL, who turned 80 on January 6. Still looking forward to picking with you, Earl!